U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her historic 3-day trip to Myanmar this week, the first high-level U.S. official to visit the country in roughly half a century. Unlike her diplomatic predecessors, however, Clinton touched down not in Yangon, the historic captial of the country once known as Burma, but in Naypyidaw, the new seat of government.
Clinton's visit marks a sharp change in U.S. policy, as the Obama administration begins its strategic move to Asia and amid signals from Myanmar's leaders that democratic openness may, in fact, finally be coming to the long-isolated country. As Jim Della-Giacoma wrote in Foreign Policy in October, "After 20 years without a parliament and democratic process, its new leaders are now showing a surprising impatience with the status quo and are changing the way this country is ruled."
But signs of the military junta's authoritarian imprint abound. Naypyidaw, or "abode of kings," the pronunciation-defying administrative seat of Myanmar's government, was only a glimmer in the junta's eye as recently as 2005, when construction began in a remote mountain jungle. By the middle of the next year, the capital -- much of it reportedly built underground -- was racing toward completion, when all of a sudden everything from file cabinets to government employees were trucked virtually overnight to the new site (on an auspicious date, allegedly proscribed by former senior leader Gen. Than Shwe's personal astrologer). Today, the partially completed capital boasts both sprawling temples and deserted streets, massive administrative buildings and empty public squares.
Above, a smiling Clinton walks from her airplane upon her arrival in the capital on Nov. 30.
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